Rebekah Gregory and then-boyfriend Pete DiMartino were standing together with her young son, Noah, close to the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, 2013. It was actually one of the long distance couple's first few in-person dates.
They were less than 10 feet away when the first bomb went off.
In a just-published open letter, Rebekah remembers the backpack of bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev brushing against her arm moments before the explosion knocked them all off their feet. She said that in the immediate aftermath, all she could see was blood.
Noah was lucky — doctors determined that he only needed a few stitches. The New York Daily News reported that Rebekah's body acted as a "human shield," sheltering her son from the worst of the blast as she bore the brunt of it.
Pete spent months recuperating from second-degree burns and a torn Achilles tendon. Rebekah's injuries were even more extensive. Her left hand was shattered and her lower body covered in burns. After a year of trying to save her severely injured left leg through surgeries and therapy, she had it amputated.
Rebekah's journey to recovery was long and hard. And it wasn't just physical.
In her open letter, Rebekah described the psychological horror of seeing Tsarnaev's face everywhere in the months following the attacks, both in newspapers and nightmares.
She told NBC News that when she was initially asked to attend his trial, she didn't think she could face the man who had caused her and those she loved so much pain in open court. There were too many bad memories.
But she found the courage.
"Then at the last minute, I was like, no — I want him to look in the eyes of the people that he hurt that day," she said. "So I kept looking at him [in court], hoping I could just catch his eyes one time. And he would not look at me. Not once."
It was after seeing how he wouldn't meet her eyes that Rebekah penned the letter.
"Up until now, I have been truly scared of you and because of this, fearful of everything else people might be capable of," she wrote. "But today all that changed."
She said she recognizes Tsarnaev now for what he is: a coward.
And she's confident in her own strength.
You can't handle the fact that what you tried to destroy, you only made stronger. And if your eyes would've met mine for just one second, you would've also seen that what you "blew up" really did BLOW UP. Because now you have given me (and the other survivors) a tremendous platform to help others, and essentially do our parts in changing the world for the better.
So yes...you did take a part of me. Congratulations you now have a leg up...literally. But in so many ways, you saved my life. Because now, I am so much more appreciative of every new day I am given. And now, I get to hug my son even tighter than before.
The letter is hard-hitting and powerful and worth reading in full. It's the letter of a woman who was knocked down but kept getting up, and it's the letter of a woman who, as she says, Tsarnaev really shouldn't have messed with.
Rebekah is now single and happy. She's embraced a career as a motivational speaker and takes heart in inspiring people with her story and her words. She's walking again with the help of a prosthetic leg, and there's strength to her step. She's grown resilient and more assured.
Rebekah ended the letter with a unifying hashtag from the difficult days that followed the bombings, one that we're all familiar with: #BostonStrong.
But, if you give us leave, we'd like to make a slight tweak, just this once.